As I have mentioned in a previous post, I work at a magnet school. In anti-school privatization circles I have been surprised to see some criticism of magnet schools. It confused me that some would lump charter and magnet schools together. After attending the Magnet Schools of America annual conference and witnessing some of the magnet policies being practiced in other states and districts, I get it now. In some places magnets have started to resemble charter schools in all the worst ways.
Steven Singer had a recent blog post in which he described the co-opting of legitimate educational reform by those who wish to privatize and profit from public schools. His analogy is that of the cuckoo bird that sneaks its egg into another bird’s nest. I think another apt analogy is that of convergent evolution. Convergent evolution is when unrelated organisms following different evolutionary paths develop adaptations that have similarities. One example is the similar wing structures of bats, birds, and insects. While these structures appear similar, they have very different origins and possibly very different futures as well.
While charter schools, magnet schools, and the school privatization movement may appear similar to the casual observer, they have very different origins and futures. Despite the rosy picture painted by charter school advocates both charter schools and school privatization have deep roots in the White response to school desegregation efforts (see here and here. Today’s charter schools have strayed very far form any utopian vision of charter schools as places for teacher freedom and innovation. Charters have mostly been co-opted by the forces of school privatization with openly for-profit schools, privately managed schools, and schools that are ostensibly non-profit but with huge salaries for questionably large numbers of “directors.”
In many places including my state, charter schools are still serving as way for White families to avoid more diverse school environment. This report shows that one-fifth of all charter schools in NC are 90% or more White. It concerns me greatly that liberal education reformers seem to be unconcerned that there is so much similarity between their reform agenda the privatization agenda on the right. Look, if an education reform policy has any similarity to what the GOP is doing in NC, then it is past time to reconsider exactly how social justice is being addressed and how those policy actions are actually impacting students of color and disadvantaged students.
Magnets, however, have almost the opposite origin (see here and here). They were designed to encourage voluntary desegregation by offering unique and specialized programs at school that would not otherwise house a diverse student population. Magnets are governed by the local school district are often developed based on community input and frequently highlight the resources unique to the area.